The epiphanic moment of the lathi charge
The girl wasn’t aware that the Udyog Bhavan Metro station in central Delhi had been shut down. In the Metro going to Gurgaon, she needed to get down at Udyog Bhavan. Her friend was waiting in a car outside the station. She waited at the door. The train stopped too, but the gates didn’t open. The PA system — the annoying PA system of the Delhi Metro that never stops saying something or the other — fell silent. The station was deserted. Not a soul in sight.
The girl asked fellow passengers — all of us men around her — which would be the nearest station that would be open. All the options were far off. Ramakrishna Ashram station on one end, for instance, was four kms. away. “Now what?” the girl asked her friend on the phone in a tone that blamed him, in a way only lovers can. “Now what?” she kept repeating.
When passengers don’t know something about the Metro — like getting on to the wrong train, for instance — other passengers teach them the lines and the stations patronisingly, rubbing in your mistake and telling you with their tone that you are a fool. In this case, however, the tone, the silence, the looks suggested something else. There was a sense of resignation in the air, as if to say we’ve all been taken fora ride by the Government of India.
In the minute or so that the Metro stood still at an empty station, I thought the PA system would say anything, any moment now. It didn’t. As if it shared our resentment. The loud emptiness of the station told me my government feared me, distrusted me, even hated me.
I change the line at Central Secretariat, to take the Violet one that will take me home. You can change lines in Central Secretariat but can’t get out of the station. The Government of India feels like Hotel California: you can checkout but never leave.
The next station is Khan Market, also shut. I expect some more eerie silence but hey, there are people at the station, the doors open. People from Khan Market can get in but we can’t get out! The PA system says in a sarkari tone (as opposed to the professional, pre-recorded ones), “Dew two sickurity rejuns, Khaan Markit stashun is klosed. Suraksha karnon se…” There, they said it. I am a ‘security reason’. Like those terrorists. Those terrorists the police can never find, so they pick up random young Muslim men and falsely frame them.
In the initial phase they shut down Metro stations but you could take an auto or a taxi or drive your car or bike to central Delhi. It was as if the nanny State was telling you: we have given you this nice Metro, you can go long distances easily, don’t misuse it! Don’t protest against us! Don’t bite the hand that feeds you! Be nice to the mai-baap government!
The Metro is the pride of Delhi, and has among other things made more accessible various parts of the New Delhi district — not designed for commoners, only for the sahibs of the British Raj. The Raj that continues with its colonial Indian Penal Code obsessed with ‘maintaining law and order’. Ever wondered what order means when spoken with the law? It means go to office, go to the cinema, go meet your friends, but don’t speak against the government. That would be disorder.
The Metro is not free of sexual harassment, but is still the safest mode of public transport in Delhi. The Metro is making distant for large numbers of people the memory of the bus system of Delhi, which for many women was never an option. The buses would be so crowded with men that it was a given that if a woman boarded it she would be groped, if not worse. Now, the government that gave us the Metro was mocking at this girl who used it without fear, as if to say, “Now what?’
When the gang-rape survivor died they cordoned off the centre of central Delhi from all traffic. An undeclared curfew. On those wide tree-lined roads, the winter sun shone sharply as barricades manned by policemen taunted the people who couldn’t get past them. Try climbing one and they will shoot a tear gas shell and the home minister will say protesters should stay non-violent!
A part of me was happy with these big yellow-painted barricades that trucks were moving around. It’s only appropriate that instead of putting people in jail as it could and has done in that era called the Emergency, the government was preferring to lock itself up. The Union of India was reduced a pathetic few square kilometres, shutting out the people of India! Strangely, we felt locked out when we should have been feeling free.
This was only the least of it. Earlier, on Saturday the 22nd and Sunday the 23rd of December, the police lathi-charged protesters. The colonial term lathi charge does not fully evoke what it is like and what it means when your police on the orders of your government beats you with bamboo sticks. That moment can be a moment of epiphany: you suddenly realise the police is not your police anymore, it is not for your protection but for the protection of the government. In other words, your government isn’t yours anymore.
I wasn’t there at Raisina Hill or India Gate on those days but several eye-witness accounts speak of the surprise the people felt when the Rapid Action Force moved into groups of protestors who were sitting on the road, and the government and the media justified the action by pointing to stray incidents of stone-pelting.
Who these stone-pelters were, who these young people were who tried to cross the barricades, I don’t know. The conspiracy theory on Twitter and elsewhere is that they were Congress storm-troopers out to discredit the protest. Even if that is not true, you certainly wonder why the tear-gas shells and the water cannons and the bamboo batons were directed at people who were just sitting and singing songs and discussing how to make the city safer for women.
Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?
– Bertolt Brecht
You have to be either extremely naive or a Congress party member or both to say that despite such police action, we should believe the government means its sympathies for the girl now dead, that it means its promises to make the city safer for women. Do you really think the Government of India cares if a 23 year old lives or dies? If it did they wouldn’t randomly shift her to Singapore without asking her doctors if that is needed. The government was more interested in PR strategies than in saving the girl’s life.
So insensitive is the government and its ‘law and order’ machinery that, as the Indian Express reported, the police even tried to interfere in the magistrate’s recording of the girl’s statement. Why? What did they want to hide? At the time they had caught only three of the accused so they wanted it recorded that rape was committed only by those three, and not the other three. That even in a case as high-profile as this the police had the gall to do this, is some indication about how much you can trust the police if your grievance isn’t top news.
The police kills ordinary, innocent people so often that it can’t be top news. In September 2012, in Delhi’s Khoda Colony, a drunk cop beat a pillion-rider at a checkpost and he died. The police lathi-charged the resulting protests by the people and detained the family of the deceased when the post-mortem was going on, hid the bullet removed by the doctors. The Indian Express recently reported that Delhi police managed to get a magisterial inquiry in the case scuttled despite intervention by the National Human Rights Commission.
Another Indian dead for ‘law and order’. Justice will have to wait till the next life.
Not that the government cares for the life of a policeman or a soldier either. If they did, they wouldn’t cynically exploit the death by cardiac arrest of a police constable to blame it on ‘violence’ by protesters. The dirty tricks department of the Manmohan Singh government was so excited by the opportunity that the death of a police constable presented that they decided to kill two birds with one stone, booking a lowly member of the Aam Aadmi Party so they could discredit Arvind Kejriwal in the bargain as well.
By now we should know that the Government of India couldn’t care less for the Indian Constitution’s promise of the right to life and liberty. We don’t have to visit Kashmir or Chhattisgarh or Manipur to understand this. We saw this as recently as September 2011 when police killed a woman, Raj Bala, at the Baba Ramdev agitation demanding a Lokpal in September 2011. The headline writers are adept in such situations in making murder sound like accident: woman dies in police action, they will say. Even the Supreme Court of India sounded so mild in its criticism: ‘It is a glaring example of trust deficit between the people governing and the people being governed,’ the honourable lordships said.
It does not matter here whether or not you support Baba Ramdev and whether or not you think public anger against the government is justified for a problem like rape, born out of society’s own misogynist attitude towards women. It does not matter whether you dislike the protesters who demand death penalty for rapists and whether you like the protesters who came from left-wing organisations. In a democracy there must be varied voices on the street demanding this or that.
Farmers demand a hike in the minimum support price? Shoot them dead. Gujjars demand reservations? Shoot them dead. Video journalist shooting police action against anti-rape protests in Manipur? Shoot him dead. Here is just a short list of the more prominent cases of police brutality.
It is not a nice feeling, the feeling that your government isn’t yours. In Delhi this December, we understood how many others from Kashmir to Koodankulam have long felt. Happy New Year.
There is an urgent need to save democracy from the Indian State, to explain to Raisina Hill that there was a reason we got rid of colonial rule in 1947. Or did we?
(First published in Rediff.)